After nine months of sitting shuttered by the City, after hopeful rumors that they’d soon be reopening, Chelsea’s wonderful La Taza de Oro has called it a day.
Sadly, it's been confirmed, the beloved 68-year-old Puerto Rican luncheonette has closed for good. I will miss it.
A tipster wrote in, "They were looking forward to opening in January, and as of not that long ago were still going to open, but the city recently put additional financial burdens in the way that make it impossible for the small business to open back up."
I went by the restaurant to find proprietor Eric Montalvo, husband of Maria and son-in-law of the man whose uncle originally opened the restaurant in 1947.
Mr. Montalvo was mopping the floor, cleaning up the place and taking it apart. He let me inside and we talked awhile. The bright yellow hand-painted menu signs had already been removed, but he put them back up, proudly, so I could photograph and admire them.
He told me he’s retiring. His children don’t want the restaurant; they all have careers of their own.
The breaking point, however, came when the city made it impossible to stay open after the Second Avenue gas explosion this past spring caused city agencies to panic and tighten the rules, so that when a few bricks fell from the neighboring facade, Con Ed turned off the gas in the Montalvos' building and the Department of Buildings slapped them with an order to vacate. They lost nine months of income. (We nearly lost the B&H Dairy for the same reason.)
Even when you own the building, as the Montalvo family does, it’s getting harder for small restaurants to stay afloat in this town, thanks to increasing bills and a punishing Health Department.
"Small businesses are being pushed out," said Montalvo.
On top of all that, the neighborhood has changed dramatically in recent years. Google took over the building across the street, and its employees, by and large, don’t want the Puerto Rican home cooking at La Taza.
“The new generation,” Montalvo said, “they walk around with the Starbucks cups and the cell phones and…like this,” he turned up his nose and clutched his collar to mimic someone who acts superior, Starbucks cup in hand.
Through the years, La Taza soldiered on, a thriving remnant of the days when Chelsea was filled with Latin restaurants and people. It has served mofongo and tostones to many a celebrity -- Carlos Santana, Puff Daddy, Benicio del Toro, Madonna, Sandra Bernhard -- among the crowd of everyday neighborhood regulars who were devoted to this warm and comforting place.
Montalvo understands that people will be heartbroken to see La Taza go. “I’m sorry to them,” he said. “This is a landmark of New York. It’s the embassy of Puerto Rican cuisine in the city.” But, at some point, you realize you're fighting a losing battle.
“I’m going back to the Caribbean,” he said. “I’m going to swim in the rivers. And try to relax.”
Montalvo plans to rent the space out and hopes for a Latin restaurant to move in.
As for those vintage hand-painted menu signs, he’ll be putting them on ebay if you’re looking for a souvenir.
La Taza shuttered by Con Edison
La Taza shuttered by DOH
Better than Starbucks. And only $1.50.